Train whistles and futures

I am reading two books simultaneously through both of which trains rattle and whistle and snake…  But which in some ways are as different as they can be.  Bill Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis is a panoramic history of the making of Chicago in the 19th century; it is a work of virtuoso research and of historical imagination.  It is inspiring, thought-provoking and brilliant. Cronon does not have some technologically determinist argument about the role of trains or canals.  He argues that

The train did not create the city by itself. Stripped of the rhetoric that made it seem a mechanical deity, the railroad was simply a go-between whose chief task was to cross the boundary between city and country. Its effects had less to do with some miraculous power in the scream of a locomotive’s whistle than with opening a corridor between two worlds that would remake each other (p. 97).

Cronon tells a riveting story of how the train companies invent grain elevators:

Before the coming of the railroad, people traded grain at St. Louis. and Chicago in similar ways, although the physical circumstances of the two towns differed markedly. In both cities, the chief market for agricultural produce was along the waterfront (p. 106). The railroads changed all this. By giving rural shippers an alternative way to reach urban markets [than shipping their grain by sacks and via water crafts], they rerouted the flow of farm produce and encouraged new settlement patterns in the areas they serviced (p. 109).

The immense amounts of grain pouring into Chicago expanded the city’s markets, but quantity alone was not the whole story. Compared with other modes of transportation, railroad cars moved grain more quickly and in standardized carloads of medium size. With whole freight cars, for instance, carrying nothing but wheat, shippers and railroad managers soon came to think of grain shipments not as individual “sacks” but as
“carloads” consisting of about 325 bushels each (p. 110). Rapid turnaround was imperative if managers were to maximize
their use of capital equipment and prevent congestion.  Achieving these goals meant getting grain. out of its sacks, off the backs of individual workers, and into automatic machinery that would move it more rapidly and efficiently. The invention that made this possible was among the most important yet least acknowledged in the history ?of American agriculture: the steam-powered grain elevator (p. 111)

So, the elevators end up allowing for carloads of grain to pour in. No longer distinct sacks belonging to specific producers, but flowing rivers of grain, mixing different producers’ products.  This could not happen in St Louis in the same way:

The movement of grain on the rivers had always been labor-intensive, and remained so as long as shipments continued to travel in sacks. As a result, St. Louis enjoyed few economies of scale as the trade of its levee grew; instead, it simply increased its employment of dockworkers, many of them slaves and recent immigrants. Elevator construction was discouraged by the fact that no single carrier on the river could guarantee a steady flow of grain through such a facility comparable to the golden torrent delivered by Chicago’s railroads (p. 112).

But to standardize all the grain and to liaise between producers and regulate the trade in grains, the Chicago Board of Trade is founded in 1848, although there was a great deal of internal contention within the board about the processes and extent of regulation and the Board has trouble attracting traders. And here, again, war ends up being of importance:

Not until European demand for grain expanded during the Crimean War did the fortunes of the Board begin to change. American wheat exports doubled in volume and tripled in value during 1853 and 1854, while domestic prices rose by more than.50 percent. The surge of foreign buying had impressive effects in Chicago. Between 1853 and 1856, the total amount of grain shipped from Chicago more than tripled, with 21 million bushels leaving the city in 1856 alone. As volume increased and traders found it more convenient to do their business centrally, attendance at daily Board meetings rose. Rather than argue over prices amid heaps of grain in streets and warehouses, traders-usually working on commission for real owners and purchasers-brought samples to the Board’s meeting rooms, dickered over prices, and arranged contracts among buyers and sellers (p. 115).

And here is where the alchemy that transforms commodities into capital begins:

By 1859, then, Chicago had acquired the three key institutions that defined the future of its grain trade: the elevator warehouse, the grading system [that controlled the quality of the grain and assigned prices based on quality], and, linking them, the privately regulated central market governed by the Board of Trade. Together, they constituted a revolution […]  Chicagoans began to discover that a grain elevator had much in common
with a bank-albeit a bank that paid no interest to its depositors. Farmers or shippers took their wheat or corn to an elevator operator as if they were taking gold or silver to a banker. After depositing the grain in a bin, the original owner accepted a receipt that could be redeemed for grain in much the same way that a check or banknote could be redeemed for precious metal […] The elevators effectively created a new form of money, secured not by gold but by grain. Elevator receipts, as traded on the floor of’Change, accomplished the transmutation of one of humanity’s oldest foods, obscuring its physical identity and displacing it into the symbolic world of capital (p. 120).

And once receipts for grain become the fetishised containers of value, these receipts themselves can be traded as valuable objects. And once the telegraph arrives, yet another magical transmutation occurs.  Local markets are knitted together with markets further afield.

A New Yorker could simply check telegraph quotations from the floor of ‘Change [Chicago Exchange] and wire back an order when the price seemed right, without having to examine a sample of the grain in advance. Telegraphic orders of this sort encouraged a sharp rise in what traders called “to arrive” contracts for grain. Under these contracts, a seller promised to deliver grain to its buyer by some specified date in the future.[…] “To arrive” contracts in combination with standardized elevator receipts made possible Chicago’s greatest innovation in the grain trade: the futures market. “To arrive” contracts solved a problem for grain shippers by ending their uncertainty about future price changes; at the same time, they opened up new opportunities for speculators who were willing to absorb the risk of price uncertainty themselves. If one was willing to gamble on the direction of future price movements, one could make a “to arrive” contract for grain one did not yet own, since one could always buy grain from an elevator to meet the contract just before it fell due. This is exactly what speculators did (pp. 123-124).

Et voila.  One goes from grain produced in the prairie to speculation over the fictitious commodity that is a “futures” contract.  Cronon’s account is magisterial and pellucid.  In the space of 30 (admittedly densely typeset) pages, he manages to explain the transformations that allow commodities produced by small producers being transported by trains and stored by train company elevators- and in the process being transformed from grain into not only capital but speculation over future prices.  Abstraction, fiction, magic, fetish objects.  Here, trains are the instruments for making grains into capital.  They are distant, massive, magical machines (and interestingly they really remind me of Mieville’s railways in The Iron Council, where they are motors of history).

And then there are the lives of the people affected by trains.  And here, the other book I am reading has serendipitous intersections with Cronon’s masterpiece – but is as different as it can be.

The other book I am reading is Albert Murray‘s Train Whistle Guitar, which is a gorgeous coming of age account taking place in the 1920’s Alabama.  If Cronon’s is a massive and grand sweep through the 19th century history of a city, Albert Murray’s dazzling novel is the story of an African-American kid growing up in a tiny town in 1920s Alabama. Cronon’s account is about how history moves; Murray’s novel is about the lives of ordinary people in all their everydayness.

I haven’t read another book since Joyce’s Ulysses that demands to be read aloud as Train Whistle Guitar does for the rhythms, the music, the sheer propulsive joy of its writing.  I haven’t read any of Murray’s writings about music, but I suspect that the book is written like a series of blues riffs.  It is a gorgeous gorgeous thing to read – and if one has lived in the US South, as I have- his evocation of the landscape, of the air and the feel and the smell and sound and accents of the place feels visceral, fleshed, beautifully reflecting the light of junebugs and the feel of humidity on skins.  His rendering of scenes of black folks gathering and speaking and preaching and remembering and storytelling -historytelling*- are astonishing feats of conveying the rhythms of voices and the flow of conversations, their bodily affects sketched beautifully, their mannerism and their clothing described in glorious detail.  But it is his extraordinary ability to draw characters that feel at once mythical and so real, with their specific voices and histories.  Here is Luzana Cholly, perhaps the most heroic of these mythics:

The more I think about all of that the more I realize that you never could tell which part of what you heard about something he had done had actually happened and which part somebody else had probably made up.  Nor did it ever really matter which was which. Not to anybody I knew in Gasoline Point, Alabama, in any case, to most of whom all you had to do was mention his name and they were ready to believe any claim you made for him, the more outrageously improbable the better.  All you had to do was say Luzana Cholly old Luzana Cholly old Luze.  Not to mention his voice, which was as smoke-blue sounding as the Philamayork-skyline-blue must beyond blue steel railroad bridges. Not to mention how he was forever turning guitar strings into train whistles which were not only the once-upon-a-time voices of storytellers but of all the voices saying what was being said in the stories as well.

And this is what Albert Murray does throughout: to write the words that echo “not only the once-upon-a-time voices of storytellers but of all the voices saying what was being said in the stories as well.”  But read that again and hear the sound of the trains rattling through the narrative.  The book begins with a map of Gasoline Point – which essentially orientates the small town in a web drawn by the tracks of private freight routes called by their acronyms crisscrossing the swamplands near Mobile Alabama. The boys fantasise about escaping on a train with Luzana Cholly; they explore along the tracks; they set their quotidian clocks by the scheduled sound of the train whistles (and the sound of sawmills).  Voices and skins and auras are compared to the gunmetal blue steel of trains.

But Scooter, the fabulous protagonist of this novel (and three others, The Spyglass Tree (1991), The Seven League Boots (1996), The Magic Keys (2005)) lives near Chickasaw river which is a tributary of Mobile River (look up the river on a map; and look for Magazine Point, which Gasoline Point is autobiographically modelled after).  The map of the place shows a convergence of waterways and railroad tracks (which is so very similar to the story Cronon tells about Chicago). And so the economy is inevitably both riverine and tracked:

The next traffic out in the channel was another launch going downstream with a log raft which was even longer than the first, and not far behind was a tug with a string of empty Tennessee Coal Iron Company barges.  We padded softly on having a good time just being where we wanted to be and doing what we wanted to do with Chicasaw still to come. Then the first tug heading upstream came into sight behind us, and the barges behind it were loaded with rosin and tar, and turpentine.

There was a blueness which went with the odor of caulking tar and turpentine and which was to twine and tarpaulin what steel blue was to rawhide; and it went with Mobile because it was seaport blue, which was that infinite color of horizons beyond harbors and salt foam, that compass and spyglass blue again which gulls circled and roared above red clanging buoys, and against which international deck flags fluttered and flapped during Mardi Gras while bilge green anchorage water lapped dully at the barnacles and pilings along the piers.

There is a particular pleasure in reading two books simultaneously, one of which speaks about the historical magic through which material things are transformed into fictions and the other writes magical music through which memories and imaginaries are transformed into something as real as Scooter’s language and the sound of Luzanal Cholly’s voice and the colour of his smell and sound:

But the shade of blue and blueness you always remember whenever and for whatever reason you remember Luzana Cholly is steel blue, which is also the clean, oil-smelling color of gunmetal and the gray-purple patina of freight train engines and railroad slag.  Because in those days, that was a man’s color (even as tobacco plus black coffee was a man’s smell), and Luzana Cholly also carried a blue steel .32-20 on a .44 frame in his underarm holster. His face and hands were leather brown like dark rawhide. But blue steel is the color you always remember when you remember how his guitar used to sound. Sometimes he used to smell like coffee plus Prince Albert cigarettes, which he rolled himself, and sometimes it was a White Owl Cigar, and sometimes it was Brown Mule Chewing Tobacco.



*history-telling is the terminology Alessandro Portelli uses to explain the telling of those personal stories and memories which in their telling also sketch histories.